The young man walked west along Skothúsvegur Street, stopped on the bridge over the Pond and, leaning over the railing, saw the doll in the water.
The bridge formed an elegant, low arch where the Pond narrowed and extended southward into Hljómskálagarður Park. The man stood at the crown of the arch, and as it was evening, there was little traffic on the road. A single car slowed down as it passed over the arch and then disappeared from view, its noisy engine breaking the stillness on the bridge. He thought he saw someone cross Sóleyjargata Street, and another person wearing a trench coat and hat walked by him without looking up. The young man leaned on the railing and looked over the Pond towards the Iðnó Culture House, the city centre and, further still, to where Mount Esja rose in the twilight, solid and immovable. Over the mountain, the moon shone like a fairy tale from a distant world, and when he looked down, he saw the doll, half submerged.
He immediately found something poetic about it, inspiring various musings typical to a young writer like him. From his jacket pocket, he pulled a small notepad and fountain pen that he always carried with him and began jotting down a few words about lost innocence, the impermanence of childhood, and the water that was both a source of life and a destructive force. The notepad, which was bound in black leather and inscribed with the date 1961 in gold numerals, was full of the observations of a young man who was slowly but surely treading the path of a writer and took that role seriously. He had already put together a volume of poetry but hadn’t had the courage to show it to a publisher. He feared criticism and rejection more than anything else and spent a good deal of time polishing each poem to perfection, constantly making small changes or adding details, as he was doing now with this new poem of his on the transience of life.
He guessed that a girl who had been walking next to the Pond had dropped her doll in the water and hadn’t been able to recover it. This thought, too, he jotted down. He tried to put the stillness of the evening into words. The city lights that were reflected on the water’s surface. He looked towards the islet in the middle of the Pond, which the Arctic terns occupied every spring. Now those birds were as silent as the night that laid its veil over the city, he wrote in his notepad. Then he crossed out the words ‘the night’. Wrote ‘dusk’ in their place. Crossed out ‘its veil’. Wrote ‘night’ again. Tried ‘its curtain’ in place of ‘its veil’, but felt that that didn’t work either.
He stuck the pen and notepad back in his jacket pocket and was about to continue on his way when it crossed his mind to fish the doll up out of the water and lay it against the bridge’s railing in case the poor girl came there in search of her toy. He walked to the end of the bridge, scrambled down to the Pond’s bank and tried reaching for the doll, but it was too far beneath the bridge. He went back up to the street and looked around for something that he could use to catch hold of the doll, a stick or tree branch, but saw nothing useful.
He abandoned his plan and walked up Skothúsvegur Street towards Hólavallagarður Cemetery. He found particular inspiration for his poems in cemeteries. He’d gone a short distance when he found the stick he’d been looking for, grabbed it, returned to the bridge and went down to the bank beneath it. He managed to hook the doll with the stick, but discovered that it was stuck. He poked at and hit the doll with the end of the stick, and was about to give up a second time when the doll came loose and floated away from him under the bridge. He watched it for a moment before dashing back up to the street, crossing it and scrambling down the Pond’s bank on the other side, where he fished the doll out of the water as it floated by.
The doll was old and a bit tatty, had eyelids that flicked open and shut, and was wearing a flimsy dress. Its mouth was half open and a little whistle came from it when he pressed the doll’s stomach. Its hair was frazzled and in some places there were holes in the scalp where it was missing. He pressed the doll’s stomach again and water leaked from its eyes, as if the doll were crying.
The young man stood there looking south along the Pond, and now caught a glimpse of something else half submerged in the water. At first he thought he was mistaken, but when he looked closer, he let go of the doll and jumped into the water. It reached up to his armpits and he waded through the mud at the Pond’s bottom without noticing how cold the water was, and before he knew it, he’d grabbed the flotsam and managed to pull it towards him. His suspicions were confirmed.
He waded back to the bank, absolutely stunned to realise that he’d found the body of a girl who had fallen into the Pond and drowned.
Eygló felt awkward and uncomfortable at the birthday party, without really knowing why. There were lots of children and adults there in the large, two-storey detached house. All of the girls in her class had come, along with three of the boys, although boys weren’t usually invited to girls’ birthday parties. The birthday girl’s fun and energetic aunts had organised all sorts of entertaining activities and games for the kids, including hide-and-seek, board games and tag in the garden, which was enormous. The kids downed fizzy drinks and popcorn and sugary birthday cakes decorated with sweets, and they even got to watch a movie, because the birthday girl’s parents had a projector and copies of American animated films.
All of it should have been enough for Eygló to have fun like the others, but something was holding her back. Maybe it was the environment. She’d never been in such a fancy house before and had a hard time tearing her eyes away from all the wonders within it. Large paintings hung on the walls and there was a gleaming black grand piano in one corner of the drawing room. All of the furniture seemed brand new. The white sofa looked unused, as if it were still on display in the furniture store. The carpet on the drawing-room floor was white as well, and so thick and incredibly soft that her feet sank into it. The home also had a television set with beautifully curved glass and buttons that seemed to be from an alien world. Eygló had never seen such a device before, and when she ran her hand over the glass, the birthday girl’s father came to the door and said in a kindly tone that she mustn’t touch the screen. Eygló was alone in the room, spared from the birthday party.
Her mind wandered back to her own home: the small, dark flat with the leaky tap in the kitchen and the basement window that was so high in the wall she couldn’t see out of it without climbing onto a chair. There was no soft carpet on the floor, just worn linoleum. Her mother worked all day in a fish factory, and there was usually nothing besides fish for dinner. She didn’t know exactly what her father did. She did know that he was drunk sometimes, and her mother scolded him for it. She didn’t like seeing it because her father was a kind-hearted man and her parents were generally affectionate to one another. And he was always good to his daughter and helped her with her homework and read her stories before disappearing for maybe a few days, without her mother knowing where he was.
The birthday girl, who was turning twelve today, was no special friend of hers. Eygló was at the party only because all the girls in their class had been invited. Actually, she shouldn’t even have been in the same class as these kids, seeing as how their families were all better off and poor kids like her were usually put in worse classes. Her teacher had quickly recognised the girl’s aptitude for learning and saw to it that she was put in the best class, where conditions for education were better and the teacher’s energy went more into teaching than maintaining discipline. The kids were quite accepting of her. Only two boys had pinched their noses and asked why her clothes smelled so bad. ‘It’s probably the smell of mildew from my basement,’ she’d said.
Maybe she felt like she didn’t belong there, surrounded by all that wealth. She had decided to skip the games for a bit and instead walked through the house, from the bedrooms to the sitting and drawing rooms, the kitchen and laundry room, admiring everything she saw. Her mother had told her to have fun and get to know the kids, and Eygló knew she said that because she was worried that her daughter was too much of a loner, feeling happier when she was by herself. Said that she inherited it from her father. But it wasn’t as if Eygló didn’t have many friends. She was sharper than most others her age and knew how to talk to the kids in her new class, and made sure they gave her her due. The other kids recognised that she had something about her and sought her company, rather than the opposite.
Eygló had been wandering around the house for a while when she found herself again in the beautiful room with the soft carpet and the white furniture, and saw a girl she hadn’t noticed before at the party. She was around the same age as Eygló and even more poorly dressed, compared to the other kids.
‘Hello,’ said Eygló, catching a glimpse of her own reflection in the rounded television screen.
The girl seemed depressed, as if something had happened to her. She was wearing a well-worn dress, knee-high socks and summer shoes with buckles.
‘Is everything OK?’ asked Eygló.
The girl didn’t answer her.
‘What’s your name?’ asked Eygló.
‘I’ve lost her,’ whispered the girl as she walked towards Eygló and past her without stopping, then onward out of the room. Eygló watched the girl disappear out of the drawing-room door, then looked down at the carpet and saw something she never forgot, because it was all so new and exotic to her. When the girl walked past, her reflection didn’t appear in the television screen and she had left behind no footprints in the thick carpet, as if she were completely weightless.
The couple’s anxiety was plain to see as they recounted their difficulties. The man’s mobile phone rang twice, but he didn’t answer either time, just checked the numbers and went on detailing the troubles they’d been having. Konrád understood their concerns but wasn’t sure if he could do anything to help. He was loosely familiar with them, but had never met them before. His wife, Erna, had known the woman for years, without Konrád ever involving himself in their acquaintanceship. The man had called him out of the blue and asked if there was any chance they could meet. The couple’s granddaughter had sometimes been problematic, and they wanted to know if Konrád could give them any advice on dealing with her. They knew that Konrád had worked for years as a police detective, and even though he was retired, the two of them were convinced that he was an expert in the types of things their grandchild was entangled in, but which were like a closed book to them. Konrád was reluctant to meet them, but gave in to the man’s urgent plea. He remembered Erna speaking well of the woman, saying that she was always genial, and vaguely recalled that the couple had lost their daughter in a car accident and raised her child.
Wanting to be completely honest, they admitted to Konrád that they were talking to him rather than the police because they hoped to keep this matter away from the media. The wife had been prominent in politics, although some time had passed since then, and they feared that the tabloid press would have a field day with this story if their connection with the girl got out. Often, it was as if the police could barely keep anything confidential. But Konrád mustn’t misunderstand them. If, in his opinion, they should turn to the police for help, they would do so without hesitation.
‘The truth is,’ said the man, ‘that we haven’t heard from her for a few days now. Either her phone is dead or she doesn’t have it with her; she’s not answering it, in any case. Of course, it’s happened before that she hasn’t picked up for a while, but never this long, and besides –’
‘We recently learned from her that she’d been acting as some sort of mule or whatever it’s called,’ said the woman, looking at her husband. ‘She wasn’t caught in customs or anything like that and said that she’d only made one trip for some people she didn’t want to name, but that could just be a lie. We don’t trust anything she says any more. Nothing. Except … this is something new … this about her being a mule.’
The woman’s expression revealed her frustration, but also her genuine concern for the girl. Maybe she blamed herself for the girl’s situation. Maybe she’d had no time for her when her political career was at its peak. Maybe the grandchild could never replace the daughter she’d lost.
‘Do you think she’s left the country?’ asked Konrád.
‘She might have her passport with her,’ said the woman. ‘We can’t find it in her room. That’s one of the things we wanted to ask you to look into for us. If you wouldn’t mind. We’re getting no answers from the airlines.’
‘I think it’s best that you talk to the police,’ said Konrád. ‘I –’
‘We don’t even know who we should talk to there. She doesn’t know what she’s doing any more and has started smuggling in drugs and we really don’t want her to be arrested and thrown in jail,’ said the woman. ‘We know she’s using drugs. First it was alcohol. Now it’s other stuff. We simply can’t manage her. She’s so hard to deal with. She’s so terribly difficult.’
‘Does she travel a lot?’
‘No, not particularly. At most, a weekend trip with her boyfriend.’
‘We thought you might be able to talk to him,’ the man said. ‘He’s never been here and we haven’t met him, but it occurred to us that it might be her boyfriend who’s using her.’
‘Have they been together a long time?’
‘We first heard about him a few months ago,’ said the woman.
‘But does she still live with you?’ asked Konrád.
‘Supposedly,’ the woman said, taking out a photo of the girl and handing it to him. ‘We can pay you for your trouble. It’s just so awful to think of her out there somewhere with those junkies and be unable to do anything to help her. Of course, it’s up to her what she does, she’s twenty and we have little say over her, but…’
‘Even if I managed to find her, she would just disappear again,’ said Konrád, looking at the photo.
‘I know, but we want to try … we want to know if she’s OK. Whether anything can be done for her.’
Konrád understood their concerns very well. While working on the force, he’d met parents who were in the same situation. Parents who had tried to do their best but witnessed their child sink deeper and deeper into the world of drinking and drugs without being able to stop it. It could be such an ordeal for the families. Many gave up following repeated unsuccessful attempts to help their kids. Sometimes, however, they managed to lead the wayward child out of that terrible rut and steer him or her towards a better life.
‘Did she admit to you that she’d been smuggling in drugs?’ Konrád asked, slipping the photo into his jacket pocket.
‘She didn’t need to,’ said the man.
‘That’s why we’re so worried,’ said the woman. ‘She may have got herself tangled in something she can’t handle.’
She looked desperately at Konrád.
‘I found her in the loo. Three days ago. She’d just returned from Denmark and must have been in a rush because she forgot to lock the door. I didn’t even know she was in there when I opened the door, and found her dropping those things into the toilet bowl. Little condoms that she … that she’d hidden in her vagina … it was shocking to see it.’
‘We haven’t seen her since,’ said the man.
Copyright © 2018 by Arnaldur Indridason
English translation copyright © 2023 by Philip Roughton